OMAHA, Nebraska — Sometimes it’s hard to feel welcome, especially when moving to a new community — or in the case of many Hispanics, a new Catholic community.
Language barriers, fears of being discovered in the country without legal permission and other concerns can keep families and individuals from getting involved in a parish or continuing to practice their faith.
Those experiences were recounted by some of the 60 parish leaders and representatives of the Latino community who gathered Nov. 18 at St. Cecilia Cathedral in Omaha as part of an archdiocesan encuentro, or encounter.
The Omaha Archdiocese’s encuentro was a culmination of gatherings of Latino leaders in parishes across the archdiocese. Diocesan-level encuentros are the current phase of a four-year process of ecclesial reflection and action leading to the U.S. Catholic Church’s Fifth National Encuentro, or “V Encuentro.”
First came parish-level encuentros; next will be regional encuentros. The national encuentro is planned for next September in Grapevine, Texas.
The purpose, as its name states, is to “encounter” others by reaching out to those at the margins through evangelization, by listening to the concerns of such a diverse community through consultation and preparing emerging ministry leaders.
The church is striving to meet the needs of growing Hispanic Catholic communities.
In the Omaha Archdiocese, Conchita Mayorga and Shacty Hurtado said they want to be part of the archdiocese’s efforts to evangelize fallen-away Catholics in Hispanic communities, helping them encounter Jesus in the church and in their daily lives.
“Sometimes we feel like outsiders … that we aren’t welcome. Even in the Hispanic community, when people are coming from different places, sometimes they feel like they aren’t welcome,” said Mayorga, a member of Assumption-Guadalupe Parish in Omaha.
“We are all trying to come out of our comfort zone and meet other people and show them that there’s Jesus,” Mayorga said of the encuentro effort. “He’s always there and they just have to get closer to him.”
Hurtado, a sophomore at Mercy High School and a member of St. Joseph Parish, both in Omaha, told the Catholic Voice, the archdiocesan newspaper, she wanted to participate in encuentro because she loves her Catholic faith and feels called to represent the youth in the Catholic Church.
She reaches out to other young people, including friends, through social media and telephone calls, Hurtado said. Sharing the faith often means simply being a good listener, she said.
Others at the gathering shared how they reach out to people in their communities — often making home visits — and discussed the challenges facing those they encounter. Barriers to church involvement include a lack of time, hospitality and communication — and for some, a sense of fear because they are in the country without proper documentation.
“Some of them say that in their native countries they were Catholic and went to Mass, but when they come to the United States, suddenly that changes. Many are afraid because they do not have legal status,” said Mariana Flores-Chavez, coordinator of Hispanic Marriage and Family Ministries for the archdiocese. “As parish communities, I think we need to be more welcoming and less judgmental. We also need to see solutions to these problems and take action ourselves as we are the church.”
The archdiocesan encuentro, during which Omaha Archbishop George J. Lucas addressed the group and presided at Mass, was preceded by a series of five, 90-minute encuentro sessions in parishes where people learned skills to help them feel more comfortable reaching out to others who were not attending Mass or involved in their parish.
Participating parishes were St. Patrick in Fremont, Holy Name, Assumption-Guadalupe and St. Francis of Assisi, all in Omaha; St. Bonaventure in Columbus; Sacred Heart in Emerson, with people from Wakefield; and Sacred Heart in Norfolk.
The next step in the encuentro process will be summarizing the information gathered at the archdiocesan event for Archbishop Lucas and presenting it at a regional encuentro in April in Kansas City, Kansas. The archdiocese will send two representatives to that gathering, Flores-Chavez said.
Lucas blessed the encuentro cross before presiding at the gathering’s closing Mass. He thanked participants for sharing their faith with each other and enriching the church of northeast Nebraska with their talents and enthusiasm for the faith.
They greatly blessed the archdiocese because of their growing involvement in parishes and their love for the faith, he said.
Maxson writes for the Catholic Voice, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Omaha.